UPDATE: This is part of a series on GMOs. Links for all of the posts for this series are indexed on my highlights page. Check out all of them.
Let’s start with some GMO numbers. For this post, let’s focus on how much GMOs are contributing to global agriculture. This is not shrouded in mystery; several organizations are very meticulously recording agricultural statistics. 170 million hectares of world crop acreage are planted with GMOs. Check out this infographic from ISAAA about GMOs worldwide.
The major crop plants with GMO varieties include corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets. These crops have been altered to include herbicide resistance, insect resistance or both. How does this breakdown with respect to percent of these major crops planted in the U.S.? As shown below, these GM varieties already have huge market shares in the U.S. agricultural system.
Sugar beets: 95%
Genetic engineering isn’t just limited to these major staple crops. A number of other specialty crops have been altered as well. The major driving force behind these modifications has less to do with herbicides and pesticides, but with disease resistance. Sometimes viral and bacterial plant pathogens wreak havoc on certain species at a rate where breeders and growers just cannot overcome the disease by conventional methods. These diseases take advantage of a monoculture (large field or grove of genetically identical plants) of susceptible plants and usually involve an insect vector to help spread the disease. This means that while farmers and scientists are trying to develop new solutions, the bugs must be more thoroughly controlled, which often takes the form of increasing chemical pesticide applications. Papayas have been genetically modified to be resistant to Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV), a disease that has drastically reduced the papaya industry in Hawaii. While the papaya still hasn’t recovered to its peak harvest from 1984, the transgenic trees are helping with its comeback. The HoneySweet Plum has been engineered to resist the plum pox virus. Tomato, squash, pepper, and potato varieties have also been engineered for viral resistance.
The prevalence of these genetically modified crops may surprise you. While the trends are moving toward planting more GMOs, the 170 million hectares of GMOs are only ~3.5% of the total agricultural land on Earth. What if you were trying to avoid consuming GMO products?* Check out these suggestions. I should note that the majority of GMO crops (corn and soybeans) fuel the animal feed market. So, if you are eating non-organic meat of any kind, then those animals have probably dined on GMO feed.
Stay tuned for more information on how GMOs are currently created, tested and put into production. Hopefully this will start a discussion on how you think these things should be done. After that, I will cover issues related to business and societal ethics of GMOs.
*For the record, the overwhelming majority of studies suggest that these GM crops are safe for consumption. You may still want to avoid them for other reasons, which we’ll get into later, but these plants have been extensively tested for safety.
For additional numbers and information about GMOs, check out the following websites: